Sonorous Æon by Æsthetica

Release date: December 8, 2017
Label: Esetiske Studier / Fysisk Format

It comes recommended by Fenriz! C’mon how bad could it be? Well, it’s certainly not bad, but I wouldn’t call it great either. Fenriz, apparently, called this album, Æsthetica’s Sonorous Æon, “a new dimension in the doom-metal history,” a mangled English phrase, which is clearly endearingly rendered from some lost Norwegian original. But I wouldn’t call it “a new dimension.” I mean, to be clear, this album does, indeed, rip, but is it telling us anything we haven’t been told before? Not really, except in one regrettable instance, but I’ll get to that.

The riffs are intoxicating, they’re brutal, the guitars are tuned to Z, the whole nine yards. If you want a perfectly serviceable, perhaps even exemplary doom metal album, this is a great contender. I even like it considerably more than Pallbearer’s latest outing; it’s energetic without losing any of the heaviness that undergirds what we all love about the genre. Fine. That’s all fine.

But if you go into this album expecting to hear “a new dimension,” you’ll come out the other end mildly bemused. Maybe this band really is better live; I haven’t seen them, but I can absolutely believe that without the constraints of the studio, some of these tracks would really have time to breathe in a psychedelic and wonderful fashion. As it is now, the album reads like an agglomeration of clichés from “the doom-metal history.” The press pass lauds the albums Eastern scales, which, I mean, are fine. But it’s been done before and done better; it’s a well-worn and interesting path, and Æsthetica does it well. That’s really what I can say about this album: it does it well. It’s a good album! It is! I can’t imagine it having a lot of staying power, though.

And that’s a shame because there are really flashes of brilliance. The post-punky shouts towards the end of the album opener ‘Haze’ are really captivating, and, listening to the basic structures of this album, it’s easy to see how it could have gone in a post-punk direction. The final track, ‘Ekstasis’ essentially is a post-punk song, and it’s great. That’s fascinating to me. The entrance of the riff in ‘La Paz’ is bone-shattering and perfectly timed. There’s a lot to like about this album, and, if you’re just a big fan of the genre, you should probably pick it up.

I mentioned something regrettable long ago in the first paragraph. It’s the elephant in the room. I was filled with a sort of dread as I looked at the track listing while reading the promo material. ‘Todesfuge’. The second track. Okay, I thought to myself, maybe they aren’t going to take it in that direction. Maybe the band just thinks that “death fugue” is a cool phrase. It is, after all, a cool phrase. But it’s also the name of one of the most gut-wrenching and powerful poems of the 20th century. For those of you who don’t know, ‘Todesfuge’ is a poem written by Paul Celan, a survivor of the Shoah (Holocaust) whose poetry chronicled the decentering of the world and who drowned himself in the Seine in 1970. (I’ve included the poem below in its English translation.) The poem is a long meditation on the experience of the Shoah from someone who lost his entire family in the camps, and it contains lines like “[Death] sets his dogs on our trail he gives us a grave in the sky.” It’s not exactly the type of topic you want to hear handled by a doom band that name-checks Motörhead and Black Sabbath in the press release, in other words.

Yet, sure enough, after a ripping guitar solo in the first track, you hear Celan himself (!) reading his poem. Who, exactly, thought this was a good idea? Is this a half-assed apology for festering anti-Semitism in the metal scene and Europe at large? Or did the members of the band wake up one morning and think, “Yes, we can do this poem justice in our metal album”? I’m certainly not one to ghettoize metal among various forms of artistic expression. I’ve written and presented academic papers on the power of metal, and I think that, in general, it’s desire to be extreme can push it to some truly extraordinary places. I don’t necessarily think that metal bands are unable to deal with weighty topics. But doing so on a rollicking doom metal album that can be safely recommended to mainstream fans of a genre of music that more often deals with Satan than 20th century lyric poetry? That seems poorly thought out at best.

I don’t want to write this album off based on a single song, but, in this instance, it’s hard. I can’t see a way of making this forgivable. I don’t want to hear ‘Todesfuge’ being read by Celan over lilting guitars. I don’t want to hear it after a solo. I don’t want to hear it transition into a guitar-driven piece. None of that makes any sense to me.

I think it underlines my major problem with the album: its pretension. All of the talk of the how new it all is, the gall to put ‘Todesfuge’ to music? It just seems like desperate attempts to appear as artistic as possible on an album that for the most part does a derivative thing and does it well. ‘Todesfuge’ stands as a glaring rebuke to Adorno’s notion that it is “barbaric” to write lyric poetry after the Holocaust; but maybe we should heed his warning, too, so we don’t end up with Black Sabbath meets Schindler’s List again.

Paul Celan, ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue)

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink
we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start flashing he whistles his
dogs to draw near
whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of sand
he commands us to play for the dance

Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
He calls jab it deep in the soil you lot there you other men sing and play
he tugs at the sword in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you men you other men you others play up again for the dance

Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite he cultivates snakes

He calls play that death thing more sweetly Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
he calls scrape that fiddle more darkly then hover like smoke in the air
then scoop out a grave in the clouds where it’s roomy to lie

Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
we drink you at dusktime and dawntime we drink and drink
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue
he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true
there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta
he sets his dogs on our trail he gives us a grave in the sky
he cultivates snakes and he dreams Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland

your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite

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